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Henri Tincq interviews Konrad Raiser

20 November 2003

Following an invitation from the public information team of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Henri Tincq, who has been in charge of religious news at the prestigious French daily "Le Monde" since 1985, interviewed Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser. The interview took place in Geneva, on Wednesday, 29 October 2003, as Raiser approached the end of his term as general secretary of WCC. This interview can be freely reproduced. A high-resolution photograph is also available free of charge (see below).

H.T. - Reverend Konrad Raiser, what is the best memory that you have from your eleven years as general secretary of the World Council of Churches?

K.R. - I have been privileged to meet many remarkable women and men, religious and spiritual figures and many senior political leaders. Among all these, my most moving memory is certainly that of Nelson Mandela. I can still picture him at the WCC Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998, arriving in the plenary hall, preceded by a superb choir, and dancing to the music as he made his way to the podium. He spoke in words of profound simplicity about his experience as a young African leader and about the way he was influenced both by the Christian faith and the commitment of the churches in the struggle against apartheid. It is an event I shall never forget.

And your worst memory?

Without doubt my visit in February 1998 to the Moscow theological academy and the unfriendly reception I received from a few young Orthodox monks and students. I have never experienced such a violent verbal attack, without, I would add, the dignitaries who were present making any move to intervene. I interpreted this as the expression of tension between this group of theological students and their own hierarchy, and particularly as the expression of their rejection as "heretical" of any kind of interest in ecumenism. I returned to Moscow in July this year and I must say that I found the situation much improved.

Would you say that the ecumenical movement has made progress in the past eleven years?

I sincerely believe that it has, but I say this with a certain degree of modesty. Firstly because people other than myself would be more sceptical. Also because the signs of progress that I see are not all due to the work of the World Council of Churches. Let's take the example of the agreement signed in Augsburg in 1999 between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. It was the first time official representatives of the Vatican had agreed to sign a doctrinal agreement with another communion of churches, and it was the result of a long process of dialogue. Lutherans and Catholics had the courage to say together that that which had separated them for four centuries should no longer divide them. It was a considerable step forward. There has also been progress in other inter-church bilateral dialogues, and other agreements have been signed. We are witnessing a real reorganisation of relations between all churches, including the churches of the Reformation and Anglicans, up to and including Roman Catholics.

I'm reminded of the statement of Vatican II that “communion” does truly exist, even if it is as yet imperfect. Unity remains a gift to be received, to be recognised, to be celebrated. But if our efforts already allow us to make unity more visible and to translate it through our actions then, yes, I am right to speak of progress. Put another way, and here I am repeating what Pope John Paul II has often stated, our journey towards unity is irreversible. It is unthinkable that we could return to the situation as it was in the past. I would go still further and claim that during these eleven years, the very quality of relationships between the churches has changed and improved. I’ve experienced this on numerous occasions on my travels, and again recently in Angola where a simple courtesy visit to the Archbishop of Luanda became an invitation to meet the full bishops’ conference.

There has, however, been no lack of tension with the Roman Catholic Church. The reaffirmation of doctrine, particularly the statement on Dominus Iesus in 2000, could seem to be a step backwards ecumenically. Has this not led to an impairment of the “quality” of relations with Roman Catholics?

I would first like to pay tribute to the faithfulness and clarity of our Catholic partners. They are brothers and sisters who seek, as we do, and who want, as we do, to respond to the ecumenical call and are not put off by opposition. They can be found at the Vatican and amongst bishops at the national level, amongst priests and lay people. As we continue our search for unity, we already feel that the links between us are so strong that the obstacles that arise do not call into question the progress already made.

At the same time, it is impossible to overlook increasing fears among Roman Catholics, but also among Anglicans and Lutherans, Methodists and Orthodox, linked to the identity or integrity of each tradition. There are trends developing or gaining momentum which see the ecumenical movement as threatening or disturbing. Following the 2003 Ecumenical Kirchentag (ecumenical inter-church gathering) in Berlin, Cardinal Joachim Meisner criticised the event for having sown confusion amongst the faithful. Such fears are linked to the breakdown and fragmentation of religious identity, to secularisation, and to the relativism which continues to gain ground at the heart of our society. We can only overcome these things, in my view, by transcending our various traditions in a common rediscovery of the spirit and life of Christ.

To answer your question more directly, I would add that such fears do in part determine the direction of the Roman Catholic Church, and that this creates problems for us. We cannot hide that. I do not for a moment doubt that John Paul II is personally committed to ecumenism and that for him, this is much more than just a question of strategy. Neither do I doubt his desire to re-open dialogue with the Orthodox. But I do not think the approach adopted is the best way to achieve that goal. John Paul II was extremely courageous in proposing to his ecumenical

partners that there should be discussion of the way “primacy” is exercised by the Bishop of Rome. However, by adding that there could be no question of discussing the concept of “primacy” itself, he demonstrated that in each of our traditions the stumbling block has to do with they way we understand our faith in the Church.

Orthodoxy has not been an easy partner either. An increased intransigence has become apparent since the fall of Communism. What lessons can be learned from this discontent and from your initiative to create a Special Commission to overcome the crisis?

I have been impressed by the religious renewal in ex-Communist countries. I think of my visits to Russia, but also to countries such as Albania which has witnessed an unbelievable “resurrection” of its church. But given the strength both of the Marxist past and the equally secularising post-Communist economic liberalism, I am also very sceptical about the “reawakening” of the soul of Orthodoxy. Excluded for seventy years by the Communist state from the cultural, economic and political spheres, it had no opportunity to adapt to the context of modern society. It was “liberated”, but without being at all prepared for the new situation. For people living through enormous upheaval, it even became an alternative ideology. As always in similar circumstances, “new converts” have sought certainties in Orthodoxy that they could no longer find elsewhere. They passed from one system to another, but their terms of reference, which involved to some extent making a distinction between “enemies” and “friends”, remained the same. The Orthodox students who verbally attacked me in 1998 in Moscow were probably former “komsomols”, young communists…

This situation has changed a great deal, in part due to the Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC. In this context, for the first time, the Orthodox churches felt they were being listened to and understood a little better. I see the reaction of one Greek Metropolitan as evidence of this. Previously his relationship with us had been difficult, but at the end of the final session of the Commission, he publicly expressed his delight that he had at long last been able to speak and be understood. Things are moving. Many of our Orthodox partners are beginning to get involved in ecumenical endeavours. There is mutual understanding, helped by the realisation that Orthodoxy is also part of the geography of Europe and has to get closer to us. Today our partners in Russia – I think particularly of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad (Head of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church) – recognise that they are part of Europe’s heritage with us and that this sharing is not necessarily a threat to Orthodoxy. They know that they need an ecumenical framework, and that this can provide a good basis for mutual understanding and for a new way of “living together” in Europe.

I think the threat of the withdrawal of the Russian Orthodox Church from the ecumenical movement, which would have called into question the whole edifice of ecumenism in the Orthodox family, has receded. The Special Commission has put into place an agenda which is comprehensive enough to deal even with our own understandings of the nature of the church. I should add that this change would not have been possible without the recognition that the predominant Protestant tradition still has too much influence over what gets onto our agenda, our way of working, the way we make decisions or celebrate worship. Perhaps we needed this crisis in order to understand that the Orthodox do not feel at home in the ecumenical movement as we do. Thus this painful crisis will have been beneficial by allowing a deepening of the understanding of the WCC as a “fellowship of churches”.

You have often spoken of the need for a “new configuration” of the ecumenical movement. How is it possible to make space for the diversity of contemporary ecumenical experience and keep a strong sense of direction in an organisation like the WCC?

I have spoken of the progress and difficulties in dialogue between the major historic churches. But one should not forget that they now represent only a part of Christianity, which today has very diverse and new expressions. Today, there is an indigenous, black or Asian Christianity in the South, a profusion of charismatic, Pentecostal and prophetic communities, and a spiritual energy which makes me think of Christianity during its initial growth. This is something I have often been able to experience, particularly during my visits to the Southern hemisphere.

These new expressions of Christianity convey in different ways the need for recognition and solidarity through the ecumenical movement. With the passing of time, their identity has become more defined and today they are more open. That is the feeling I get from the replies we received to our invitation to explore ways to create a Global Christian Forum. This is where we are. We can no longer stick to the outdated and simplistic distinctions between “ecumenical” and “liberal” on the one hand, and “evangelical” and “conservative” on the other. In terms of theology and spirituality, for example, the majority of our member churches from the South are evangelical.

This is the background against which the question of a new form of “governance” of the ecumenical movement is being posed. If there is no structure of reference, no transparency in the way responsibilities are exercised, nor any discipline about participation, we risk encouraging the rise of a militant, populist and fundamentalist Christianity. The World Council of Churches can be, in its own way, such a fundamental framework or backbone. Its future also lies in the way it allows for the expression of the widest possible diversity of opinion, in the way it provides a protected space for encounter, in the resistance it offers to normative, exclusive and trenchant ways of thinking. The challenge for tomorrow’s WCC lies precisely in accompanying changes in mentalities, in generations and in forms of Christianity and in facing up to the spiritual challenges that result.

But what is your vision of the future of Christianity which, from a purely European perspective, is in decline?

If one looks at the situation of Christianity in Europe, it is true that one tends to be pessimistic. But we should not forget that Christianity, throughout its long history, has never been “pinned down” to one particular geographic or cultural zone. It has always been able to renew itself. In the same way, we should not forget that the sociologists and philosophers of the 1960s were wrong about secularisation, blind as they were to the fact that secularisation does not exclude new forms of religiosity which, today, are emerging with great energy.

It is true that we are at the end of a cycle, of the sort which Christianity has continually faced, such as at the end of antiquity or of the Middle Ages. A new period in the history of Christianity is beginning, what could be called the post-modern era, grounded in the forms of revival that I see in the activity of communities such as Sant’Egidio, the Focolari, Arche, Taizé, or Grandchamp. The growth of Christianity in the South, added to new forms of church life in “old” Europe which offer more sense of community, make me optimistic about the future.

You often say that the ecumenism is above all a “gospel imperative”. What has this meant for you during these eleven years as general secretary of the WCC?

- When I first encountered the ecumenical movement, a long time ago, it saw itself as being involved in struggle: spiritual struggle, social struggle, not only for Christian unity but also for the renewal of our churches, of our faith, for the transformation of the world. Today, I am convinced that rather than a struggle, ecumenism is a call and a journey directed by the Spirit of God. I am also convinced that the future lies in what Chiara Lubich (founder of the Focolari movement) calls “ecumenism of the people”, as opposed to the ecumenism of the past which was perhaps too focused on church leaders.

The Ecumenical Kirchentag in Berlin earlier this year made a real impression on me and confirmed for me that this is the vision for the future. It was the “people of God” in all their diversity who asserted themselves, in the name of that “gospel imperative” mentioned earlier, through the meetings, discussions and worship.

For me the “renewal” of the church is a continuous process. The ecumenical movement is moving out of a time of structural and organizational concerns towards a phase of journeying, of pilgrimage of the whole people of God. Tomorrow, when I have finished my term of office I shall, as far as I am able, take up my place in that pilgrimage just as I did in the past.

Henri Tincq has been in charge of religious news at the prestigious French daily "Le Monde" since 1985. He was awarded the John Templeton "European Religion Writer of the Year" prize in 2002. He is the author of numerous books, including Une France sans Dieu (France without God, 2003), Les génies du christianisme (Great Christian Thinkers, 1999), Les médias et l'Eglise (Media and the Church, 1997).

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